The Wild Swans’ peak years exist more as legend than fact. Tentatively emerging from the post-punk Liverpool scene, they released one single, ‘The Revolutionary Spirit’, on Zoo Records, recorded a few radio sessions, and promptly disappeared. The youthful brilliance of these early recordings made them one of the great ‘lost’ bands from the early 80s yet they reformed in ’86 to record a couple of horrible-sounding albums that, all in all, did nothing to enhance their reputation. In 2003 came Incandescent, a compilation that collected everything recorded from their early years. Listening to it for the first time is certainly a moment of wonder as The Wild Swans come off as the missing link between early Orange Juice and The Smiths. Jangly, romantic, and highly poetic, there is real genius in those first recordings. Unfortunately Incandescent is now out of print and internet prices regularly border on the outrageous. Fast forward to 2011 and we have The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, the group’s third album in 30 years.
Truth be told The Wild Swans are actually Paul Simpson, in that he is the singer, main songwriter, and the only person to have graced all of their recordings. An early member of The Teardrop Explodes, Simpson has somehow persevered in the face of adversity and general indifference, and now for the second time he calls on some fellow musicians (including Will Sergeant of Echo & The Bunnymen) to rally around the banner and join him for one more death or glory raid into no man’s land. Yes, Simpson is a doomed romantic and, turning his steely gaze on England’s green and pleasant landscape, he does not like what he sees. Opening track ‘Falling To Bits’ is nothing less than a clarion call as he asks the residents of England to rise from their stupor and light a mighty bonfire that torches what England has become. It reminds me that romanticism can, at times, sound an awful lot like fascism. At some point the sorrows of young Werther became the sorrows of young Adolf and all that talk of noble spirit and purity suddenly sounded like the most frightening thing on earth. That’s not to say that I think Simpson is a fascist or any such nonsense, but romanticism taken to extremes starts to become unromantic. It starts to sound dogmatic and reactionary and there’s certainly a lot of romanticism on The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, perhaps a little too much for my liking.
Despite this, there is still much to enjoy on the album. ‘Chloroform’ is a highlight, as Simpson conjures up images of loss from both World Wars. ‘English Electric Lighting’ moves along with a certain grace but oftentimes Simpson’s tendency to list numerous aspects of English society make me think of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ which I’m guessing is not the effect the band is after. In terms of music there’s nothing particularly bad, indeed with each listen I seem to enjoy the whole thing more. At the same time, when it’s your third album in 30 years, sounding like an above-average James album is not going to win you legions of new fans. For all its strengths The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years won’t be supplanting those early recordings as the Holy Grail of The Wild Swans canon.
I feel like I’m being overly critical of an album that I basically enjoy, but I think the problem is I don’t enjoy it enough to let the weak points pass by without a mention. I would say ‘My Town’ is another highlight, and musically that would be the case, but the lyrics feature the same lamenting of things gone by and that incessant listing of things which isn’t as powerful as Simpson seems to think it is. Then, when he invokes William Blake on ‘The Bluebell Wood’, I begin to tire of the mythical Albion so beloved by many. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Scot and I couldn’t give two shits about Albion (even though it refers to all of Britain, the name Albion seems to be an English obsession), and perhaps it’s that fear of extreme romanticism that I mentioned earlier, but a lot of these lyrics don’t sit easy with me. Perhaps Britain is a shadow of its former self, but I need to know why people believe that to be the case before I sign up for their mailing list. Oftentimes eulogies of Britain’s lost majesty are used as a stick to whack immigrants with while ignoring the neo-liberal policies of every Prime Minister from Thatcher onwards.
I have no doubt that Simpson would be outraged at the idea that a member of the English Defense League is at this very moment enjoying the sentiments expressed on The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, but there’s no denying that the anger being expressed is ambiguous enough to appeal to all the wrong kinds of people. It feels out of place in these troubled times. And yet, as stated, with each listen I do enjoy the whole album a little more. When all’s said and done, it is an equally rewarding and frustrating experience, and that seems to be an all too familiar pattern when it comes to The Wild Swans.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)